Md. tourism officials to boost bay, Underground Railroad

Twin initiatives to cost $2 million at a time when spending is tight

October 19, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

As tourism leaders from across Maryland gather today for their annual conference, a recurring theme will be finding ways to do more with less, given the state's budget squeeze.

State officials say they will lay out a strategy that brings some advertising work in-house, demands more accountability from recipients of tourism grant money, puts more emphasis on high-return, Internet marketing and capitalizes on the state's existing tourism strengths.

Key to the state's plan will be promoting what is widely recognized as one of the state's jewels, the Chesapeake Bay, which touches about half of Maryland's 24 counties.

Over the next two years, state officials hope the bay in some way will be made part of the national park system. The National Park Service is considering several options for expanding its role in the country's largest estuary, and its actions could have major implications for tourism in Maryland.

"On a national and international level, we want to focus on the bay," said Dennis M. Castleman, Maryland's assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts. "We want to use that as a centerpiece and focal point to help drive tourism."

Today's travelers are interested in the natural resources and historic sites of the places they visit.

"We have a lot more people driving into the state, and they're looking for a very different kind of vacation experience," Castleman said. "We think the bay initiative is perfect timing for that."

Several hundred people from the tourism industry are expected to attend the three-day conference being held at Turf Valley Resort & Conference Center in Ellicott City. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a former governor and mayor of Baltimore, are among the dignitaries expected to attend a banquet tomorrow night.

Along with the bay, the state will pursue a second tourism initiative, re-creating the land and water path of the Underground Railroad through Maryland.

Maryland native Harriett Tubman, whose name is known around the world, is credited with bringing more than 300 slaves to freedom via an elaborate Underground Railroad that led north.

"While other states can talk about the Underground Railroad, only we can talk about where [Harriett Tubman] was born," Castleman said. "We want people to be able to travel the same route that the slaves traveled."

Although a simple marker in a field in Dorchester County now commemorates Tubman's birth, busloads of people visit the site every year - some literally to kiss the ground, tourism officials say.

Tubman, a petite woman who never learned to read, is said to have waded through swamps and run from dogs to lead her followers out of slavery. Often those seeking freedom followed the North Star, or kept track of directions based on which side the moss grew on trees. They communicated through song or quilts that doubled as signal flags containing coded directions.

The state would like to put interpretive signs in place and seek out National Park Service grants to help Maryland create that trail, Castleman said.

"It's a story about the worst in us and the best in us, and therefore can be very dramatic," said Robert Barrett, senior vice president of the Los Angeles convention and visitors bureau, who is credited with pioneering the country's first cultural tourism program in 1995. "I know the consumers are there that would love to find that product."

If done right, the richness and extent of the material could draw people back several times, Barrett said.

"What's better in the travel world than a product that causes consumers to reach for their wallet many times," he said. "You could sell the hell out of it."

The Underground Railroad and the Chesapeake Bay initiatives cost about $1 million each, Castleman estimated.

State officials also will announce that the average length of a visitor's stay reached an all-time high of 2.8 days in 2002 - within reach of the three-day goal they have long strived to attain. The length of stay is up from an average of 2.4 days in 2001, according to the most recent numbers of TravelScope, a national survey done by the Travel Industry Association of America.

Average household spending per trip slid from $337 in 2001 to $334 last year, but state tourism officials are optimistic.

"In this economy, to see the average daily stay go up is very encouraging," Castleman said. "When the economy turns around, if we can maintain that length of stay, I would expect some very positive numbers."

Nationally, the average length of stay dropped from 3.4 days in 2001 to 3.3 in last year, while average household spending per trip dropped from $501 to $457.

"The bottom line is, you have more people spending three days than two," Mike Pina, a spokesman for the Travel Industry Association, said of the Maryland numbers. "People are either taking time from their jobs or schools to spend time in Maryland. You're seeing that because Maryland is a big drive destination."

Pina thinks it will take a turn in the economy to bring more money to Maryland.

"As the economy changes, people will spend longer time there, spend more money and make more impulse purchases," he said.

State officials also hope to revamp the tourism Web site because that medium offers a much better return on investment than more traditional print, television and radio advertising.

And, in an effort to better track Maryland's return on investment, Castleman plans to refocus $1 million in state grant money previously earmarked for development and marketing solely on promotion.

"Changing the grant program to a marketing format," he said, "will put us in a better position to look at it next year" and measure its success, possibly providing a reason for seeking for more funds.

Castleman plans to remind everyone at the conference that tourism is an $8.6 billion industry in Maryland.

"Every Marylander saves $151 in taxes because of tourism," he said.

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